Ecology, The Science of Last Resort

Bharat Lal Seth

The upper riparian on a river often wears a hegemonic hard hat and seeks to appropriate every drop of water possible; water that flows to the delta is deemed “wasteful.” But when the hegemon becomes the hegemonized, or geographically disadvantaged, the hard hat is discarded for the baggy green to invoke the science of ecology.

This is the position Pakistan found itself in as a team of lawyers and a bevy of international experts tried to pull out all the stops to try and get the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to rule in its favor. Earlier in February 2013, the Court dismissed Pakistan’s contention that India’s plans to build a dam on the Kishenganga (in Pakistan, called the Neelum) River as part of a 330-megawatt hydel project was in violation of the Indus Water Treaty. While the Court in its Interim Award gave India the go-ahead to divert water for power generation, what remained to be worked out is how the dam would be operated to ensure a flow of water downstream of the 37 meter high wall of concrete. Citing insufficient data, the Court sought more information, specifying June 2013 as the deadline so as to allow it to make its final ruling by December.

A 7-member bench at the Court of Arbitration delivered the Final Award on December 20
A 7-member bench at the Court of Arbitration delivered the Final Award on December 20, 2013

Last month, the Court in its Final Award stipulated that nine cumecs of water (or 9000 liters per second) be released downstream of the dam at all times. This means that India must release what works out to roughly half the average flow at the dam site during the lean flow months, December through February. India had desired to release less than half of the nine cumecs the Court finally decided on, while Pakistan claimed it had collected enough scientific evidence to justify releasing more. The Kishenganga – which flows from India into Pakistan and meets with the Jhelum River, one of the rivers covered by the Indus Water Treaty – would suffer significantly reduced water flows as Pakistan too has plans to use and divert water for hydroelectricity generation once the river crosses the border, referred to as the line of control given the territorial dispute between the two countries. Both projects will divert river flows from the Kishenganga valley in to a tunnel, channeling water towards a power station, and then return flows to the Jhelum River.

India claimed that a stipulated release of more than 4.25 cumec would compromise the viability of their hydel project. They submitted that Pakistan’s minimum release scenarios of 10 cumec and above would cause their project to operate below its design discharge for between 60% and 95% of the time. Pakistan objected that India exaggerated energy losses and submitted figures to the contrary. They then claimed that if India released roughly 4 cumec or thereabouts, this would result in a loss of more than 12 per cent capacity at their own project site. Given the scientific evidence presented by Pakistani representatives, the Court alluded to the fact that possibly more than 9 cumec would have been awarded had India not been the first mover in the early 1990’s to announce their intentions of building a dam and power station.

But Pakistan and India are both guilty of duplicitous posturing. According to the Court, Pakistan has done a very detailed study using advanced methods such as Downstream Implications of Flow Transformation, or DRIFT methodology. This inter-disciplinary methodology examines a large number of indicators of water quality, fish, macro-invertebrates, sediment loads, hydrology, etc., before arriving at a decision on acceptable environmental flows (e-flows) downstream of a dam. As the downstream state, Pakistan is seeking a greater release of water for its own uses. Rather than using simplistic methodologies of minimum flows – which is an arbitrary fixed percentage of average flow that they happen to use for domestic projects – they employed international e-flows experts to produce a more comprehensive impact assessment to justify a larger release volume in the name of ecological sustainability. In short, Pakistan is using a cloak of ecology to shield its hydropower desires.

Members of the Court of Arbitration and representatives during a field visit to the Neelum river valley in February 2012
Members of the Court of Arbitration and representatives during a field visit to the Neelum river valley in February 2012

India for its part considered the survival of three fish species every one kilometre between the dam site and the border, i.e. at 12 sites. But in spite of their assessments being more in-depth than what is customarily done for domestic projects in India, the Court stated, “that an in-depth assessment of the type that Pakistan has attempted for these proceedings is a more appropriate tool for estimating potential changes in the downstream environment.” The Court in February 2013 had argued that the Kishenganga project be built with “environmental sustainability in mind,” and hence sought more evidence of possible impacts. Pakistan developed 17 different flow scenarios, and claimed that India’s arbitrary figure of 4.25 cumecs was not backed by science. India, playing the hydro hegemon, argued that Pakistan is urging the Court to order a greater environmental flow than is actually necessary, referring to their submission as a “constellation of environmental material” that amounts to advocacy and beyond the Court’s request for data.

India’s lawyers made the bizarre argument that Pakistan, like india, currently as a norm utilize simplistic minimum flow methodologies. Therefore they claimed it was unacceptable for Pakistan to employ scientific rigor to justify a higher flow in this case. This unenviable argument was a masterstroke. The Court acknowledged the point “that the environmental sensitivity that Pakistan urges in these proceedings does not match Pakistan’s own historical practices, where the environmental flow has often been set at a low minimum”.

In India the (Federal) Ministry of Environment and Forests stipulates randomly three season flows; 20% of the lean season flow in the lean months, 30% of the monsoon flow in the monsoon months, and 20-30% of the average seasonal flow in the other months. Whether this rule of thumb leads to fish kills is of little concern to the environment ministry.

Ironically, India would like China to do comprehensive impact assessments of large hydro projects on the Yarlung Zangbo (or Brahmaputra), where China is the hegemonic upstream power. This parallels what Pakistan has desired India do on the Indus River. Such hypocrisy on the convenient and last resort use of ecology will only have disastrous consequences for our rivers, shared or otherwise. Scientific rigor as applied by Pakistan, in this case to affect India's hydro ambitions and further its own, should not only be desirable but non-negotiable in order to understand and protect riverine ecology.  

This article is a modified version of what appeared in the Hindustan Times on January 8, 2014

Thursday, January 9, 2014